Review: ‘Fear Street Part 1: 1994’ (2021)

Featured image: Skull Mask in Fear Street Part 1: 1994. (Photo Credit: © 2021 Netflix, Inc.)

Directed by Leigh Janiak. Screenplay by Phil Graziadei & Leigh Janiak. Starring Kiana Madeira, Olivia Scott Welch, Benjamin Flores Jr. Runtime 1h 47 min. Released on July 2, 2021.

This review may contain spoilers.

The Fear Street trilogy on Netflix is one of my most anticipated things of this summer, as it feels like an event. Three weeks – three new horror movies. The first one, Fear Street Part 1: 1994, premiered on July 2. With this new film, it knows its identity from the jump as it pays homage to the slashers of the 1990’s.

It starts by paying homage to one of its biggest inspirations in Wes Craven’s Scream. Heather (Maya Hawke, Robin on Stranger Things) works alone at Shadyside Mall’s bookstore, which sells versions of R.L. Stine’s Fear Street novels (they say they’re written by Robert Lawrence, the R.L. in R.L. Stine). As the mall is closing for the night, she encounters a man in a Skull Mask and a fight ensues.

For the opening scene, it evokes some of the same imagery from Scream’s opening and the casting of Maya Hawke is brilliant and inspired. In this scene, the film subverts expectations early by revealing the identity of that killer. In this way, it separates itself from Scream, as screenwriters Phil Graziadei & Leigh Janiak then set up the history of Sunnyside as having a deep history of violence, stemming from a witch named Sarah Fier.

We get some of this exposition through Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr.) as he participates in a chatroom where he and a friend theorize the witch is responsible for the town’s spree killings, including the latest one. The town’s so desensitized to the violence, the teens celebrate the return of the witch.

The main group in the film includes Josh, as well as his older sister Deena (Kiana Madeira) and her friends Kate (Julia Rehwald) and Simon (Fred Hechinger). They’re perfectly likable characters, but if you were to ask me their names by the time the next film comes out, I don’t know if I’d be able to tell you.

Maya Hawke as Heather in Fear Street Part 1: 1994. (Credit Netflix © 2021.)

The memorable name, at least, is Deena’s ex Samantha (Olivia Scott Welch), and that’s because of how she’s introduced. They say that Deena’s ex is named Sam but they purposely don’t mention the sexuality; so the reveal of the LGBTQ relationship almost feels like a twist since a gay relationship at the core of a horror film, a teen horror especially, feel so rare. It’s neat to see this being at the centre of the film and their relationship is the only interesting character dynamic in the movie.

However, their break-up is weakly written. We learn that Sam moved to the rich neighboring town of Sunnyvale 30 minutes away (“you might as well be on the moon,” shouts Deena), and we learn this while they’re at a vigil. The pair argue “backstage” and their classmates find themselves in an all-out brawl, and these two scenes are awkwardly meshed together especially since the music doesn’t fit the argument.

You see, Shadyside and Sunnyvale hate each other’s guts. The reason is their difference in wealth, but it’s probably because their two names are so hilariously interchangeable. This conflict is where this film feels too much like a Netflix production. The conflict is obnoxiously very similar to the conflict between Riverdale and Greendale on Netflix’s Riverdale. The feud is a template of melodrama rather than anything real.

Thankfully, it’s only about 15 minutes of cringe and then the script throws it away once the horror really starts. Co-writer and director Leigh Janiak directs these scenes well, and her horror sequences have a lot to offer. However, the characters lack depth besides Deena and Sam; and much of the dialogue lacks interest. The consolation is that the casting is good, and it’s nice to see stars that are believable as high schoolers.

The film’s soundtrack, too, is killer as one of the more prominent 1990s aspects of this film. The film pays homage to 90s slashers, but it’s more supernatural as it leans into the history of its town, instead of the unmasking of the killer in Scream. It’s more like Freddy vs. Jason in structure as these characters go from one situation to the next, evading the film’s villains. I won’t spoil the villains outside of Skull Mask but they’re a lot of fun; and are a cohesive mashup in the Fear Street Universe.

Fear Street Part 1: 1994
Benjamin Flores Jr. as Josh and Skull Mask in Fear Street Part 1: 1994. (Photo credit: Netflix @ 2021.)

I haven’t read any of the Fear Street books, as I apparently jumped right from R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps straight to Stephen King. Thanks to these villains, I’d like to check out the books. As Stine’s books may have worked as a gateway interest in horror, this film work the same. There’s all the gore you’ll want, but it isn’t necessarily scary. It’s perfect for younger teens wanting to break into the genre, especially since it’s tense but won’t keep you awake at night.

Fear Street Part 1: 1994 definitely isn’t a perfect film, as I think this chapter’s ending underwhelms. The great thing about this trilogy is that we’ll find out what happens next almost immediately (next Friday). If I would have had to wait a whole year after that ending, I would have lost interest. With this, we get to see the payoff of the universe building very quickly, where we can see the second film (hopefully) redeem itself. It’s also cool that we’re guaranteed to see everything planned for this universe, instead of something like The Mummy in the Dark Universe being dead on arrival and not seeing anything else of that world.

Here, I think it’ll be neat to see what comes out of it as this world is well-defined. You can sense some of the “movie universe” building throughout the film and setting up dominoes for the two future parts. That just creates more excitement, and I hope I like the second film a little more.

Score: 63/100

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